Government officials in Norfolk, Va., are not only taking a local business, they are telling the owners to be quiet about it.
Central Radio Company has been in Norfolk for nearly 80 years. Founded in 1934, Central Radio serviced radio equipment for the U.S. Navy during World War II. Today, it employs more than 100 people and continues to provide electronic equipment for the Navy as well as law enforcement agencies and area schools.
One would think that Norfolk city government would embrace this venerable and thriving small business; instead, it is trying to push Central Radio out of the way. Two years ago, the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority started proceedings to seize Central Radio’s headquarters in order to give the property to Old Dominion University. The university has no specific plans for the property.
Bob Wilson, an owner of Central Radio and the nephew of the company’s founder, was not about to go down without a fight. After losing an eminent domain challenge in state court, Wilson and his business partner commissioned a 375-square-foot banner that reads “50 YEARS ON THIS STREET, 78 YEARS IN NORFOLK, 100 WORKERS THREATENED BY EMINENT DOMAIN!”
The banner worked. Almost immediately, Central Radio started getting calls and letters of support from Norfolk-area residents, businesses and grassroots political groups.
Norfolk officials quickly moved to silence Central Radio. One week after the banner went up, city inspectors said the protest banner violated the sign code because the owners didn’t have a permit to hang the sign and because the sign was larger than 60 square feet. Old Dominion University, however, and several other nearby businesses have banners that are just as large. Nevertheless, the city ordered Central Radio to either take down the banner by May 5 or be fined up to $1,000 per day.
Obeying the city would muzzle Central Radio’s free speech rights. Seeking to avoid the fate of the many other neighborhood buildings around Central Radio that have already been knocked down, the banner sends an important message that can be viewed from over a block away. A 60-square-foot banner, the size mandated by the city, would be virtually invisible to the thousands of people who pass by each day on busy Hampton Boulevard.
This is by no means the first time a local government has abused its power of eminent domain and then sought to quash the free speech rights of the aggrieved owner whose land is being taken. The city of St. Louis tried exactly the same end run around both property rights and free speech rights when Jim Roos, a local housing activist, grew so tired of the city taking the properties he rehabilitated for the city’s poor that he commissioned a protest sign on the side of one of his threatened buildings. The sign called for an end to eminent domain abuse in St. Louis. The city, predictably, told him that if he wanted to display such a large sign, he would have to apply for a permit and, when he did, they turned him down. Represented by the Institute for Justice, Roos fought the city in court, scoring an important free speech victory before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. His protest sign remains in place to this day.
To ensure that Central Radio can continue to display its banner, the Institute for Justice filed suit against the city of Norfolk earlier this month. In doing so, IJ hopes to vindicate the idea that every American may stand up and speak out—loudly—against government abuse of power.
Robert Frommer and Erica Smith are IJ attorneys. For more information, visit www.ij.org.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire